Wednesday, November 01, 1995

You Were There! What Makes Us Different?

You Were There!
What Makes Us Different?

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach,
Temple Anshe Hesed
Erie, PA

Long before the headlines of this past summer, before I knew that scientific excitement would come in the form of fossils in a meteor, I was reading a series of science fiction books about Mars. In these books, the first settlers on the red planet were developing a society, a way of life distinctly different from anything that had existed on earth. For these people and their children were, they argued, fundamentally different from those who had gone before. They came from many different backgrounds on Earth, but they were united now in a unique way, shaped by their journey, changed by their experience, forged by the flame of fate into a group that came from, but was different than that which had gone before.

What makes Jews different from gentiles? The question is one that touches on both the identity of Jews - and the essence of Judaism. And it is not an easy question to answer.

Is it our beliefs that set us apart? But I know, and you know, Jews who are atheists. And unlike in other religions, whatever I may think of their arguments, there is nothing I can (or would) do to read them out of the Jewish fold. They, too, are Jews. And there is the old joke: if you have two Jews in a room, you have three opinions.

Is it, then, our ethnicity? On November 11th, in my synagogue in Erie, our Jewish community will welcome traveling representatives of Project REAP, the Reform Movement’s Ethiopian Jewry Assistance Program, as part of their national tour to bring attention to and awareness of the ongoing absorption issues faced by the Ethiopian community in Israel. Those who have met Ethiopian Jews know that it is not ethnicity alone that makes us different. For we come in every shape and size, every color and combination of colors in the human rainbow.

Is it that we are a people, or, simpler, just born Jewish? But how, then, could one join? How account for the inescapable fact that some of our most dedicated devoted, knowledgeable and spiritual individuals ... were not born as Jews?

Is it that we are the Chosen People of God? It is a controversial concept, powerful - and provocative. There were, indeed, tremendous differences between the polytheistic cultures of the Ancient Near East, and the world’s first monotheist.               The concept of being the chosen people made sense then. Today, however, with daughter faiths that have flourished in the loving light of the One God, it may well be out of date. Or time to update.

In the first eleven chapters of Genesis, our tradition describes a God who tried to work with all human beings at once. This is universal history - and it was an abject failure. God winds up expelling us from Eden, witnessing the first murder, drowning most of the world and then deliberately confusing us with different languages.

It doesn’t say much for us. But, frankly, it wasn't a great record of accomplishment on God’s part, either. History takes a major turn with the twelfth chapter of Genesis. For here, God doesn’t deal with everyone in the whole world all at once together. God calls Abraham. And God begins to deal with human beings ... in groups. (Personally, I believe that God remained universal, and interested in all human beings. God called to all groups, in different ways.)

However literally you take these stories in the pre-history of Genesis, with this twelfth chapter our ancestors express an important insight. Yes, all human beings, every one of us - male and female, black and white and brown and yellow, each one of us is created in the image of God. Yes, we share that common heritage as human beings. But we also live our lives in groups. We do not begin as citizens of the world. We relate first to families, and then in expanding circles of similarity outward.

It is good to take pride in the groups of which we are a part. It is healthy. It is natural. It is human.
But there is a thin and fragile line ... between pride in ourselves ... and thinking that what is good in us makes us better than others. There is a dangerous difference between pride and prejudice, between cohesiveness and chauvinism, between liking what makes us different from other people ... and not liking what makes other people different from us.

This is the challenge of our human heritage: to balance pride with appreciation, to realize that different is not better and different is not worse. Different is different.

And perhaps we should even remind ourselves ...that the path to God is found not on one road alone, but in many ways. We reach out to God with our own traditions and celebrations. So, too, do others. What binds us together is the potential to reach out. Even if we do so in very different ways.